Blackout Theatre Company consistently delivers high quality, committed, accessible musical productions and IN THE HEIGHTS playing at The Joan in Penrith does not disappoint. It’s a strong, dynamic show with captivating leads, excellent choreography and dancing from the ensemble and colour galore in the costuming. Add to this some lovely voices and a Pulitzer Prize nominated text and audiences are guaranteed a terrific night at the theatre.
IN THE HEIGHTS has music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Miranda began the work as a sophomore in college, was headhunted to Broadway and in its final form the show would be nominated for 9 Drama Desk and 13 Tony Awards. Miranda might go down in theatre history for the success of HAMILTON but this earlier work is a favourite for community theatres.
We meet Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights NYC. He will be our guide to his neighbourhood and its people. A mainly Hispanic-American suburb, the community is being squeezed. Higher rents are affecting shop owners and the young people are wanting to move out and up to a new type of living. The close-knit community is under social and financial pressure. Usnavi knows this well as we see him chasing away a graffiti artist from his struggling business.
Usnavi is played by Anthony Chester who is a warm and gracious host. With a welcoming physicality, he moves so well around the large stage and his contact with the audience is genuine and sincere. Plus, his vocal work is excellent given that he has so much rap inspired, poetry resonant dialogue around the music. But he can belt when he needs to. ‘Hundreds of Stories’ his duet with Abuela Claudia was my favourite scene of this production.
Tongued tied and crippled by embarrassment he has an eye for Vanessa but needs the help of Sonny to make a move. Sonny (Jerome Varlet) plays the role with a mischievous, naughty and ultimately insightful enthusiasm. Varlet is obviously a crowd favourite and his direct-to-the-audience cheekiness is both winning and laugh out loud fun.
Marika Zorlu is Vanessa, a young woman with an eye to a better future. What a charismatic performer, even with a phone glued to her ear she lights up the stage every entry. A triple threat, Zorlu is sexy and sassy and just a delight to watch. With a killer voice and killer moves she owns this role.
As does Nicole Harwood playing the other female lead, Nina. Harwood’s fine voice combines with very good acting to give Nina delightful presence. Nina has been forced by economics to drop out of Stanford and Harwood’s solo work in ‘Breathe’ early in the show really endears Nina to the audience, allowing them to take her journey with her. She not only nails the challenging music but, with support of a great lighting effect, gives a strong insight into Nina’s loneliness and how lost she feels. That kind of longing is very hard to put across without seeming too doe-eyed and Harwood has it just right. She matures Nina through the show and her lovely duet with Benny caps off a very enjoyable performance.
Nina’s love interest, Benny (Douglas Bryant) took a while to settle his opening night nerves but by the time he is on the balcony with Nina after interval for ‘Sunrise’ their voices blend beautifully and they are the perfect couple. We see Benny’s aspirational and romantic nature without his being soppy and we are rooting for the young lovers who are battling her parents for acceptance.
Nina’s parents are Camilla Rosario (Katie Griffiths) and Kevin Rosario (John Hanna). Their relationship is well expressed and as Griffiths grows into the role, she has a lovely rapport with her daughter. Her wise understanding of the father-daughter relationship is heart-warming in ‘Atencion’ towards the end of the piece. Hanna’s Rosario has immigrant bravado and machismo yet his solo ‘Inutil: Useless’ touches anyone who has ever doubted themselves.
Two minor cast members who are doing a major job in this production are Irene Toro as Daniela, the owner of a beauty salon, and her employee Carla (Emma Joseph). These pair are obviously having a great time and its highly infectious. Joseph is a funny and ditzy character and Toro is big and brassy and totally lovable with excellent comic timing. As the Piragua Guy, Stephen Helies has some engaging cameo appearances, too, as does Daniel Lavercombe’s Graffitti Pete.
The heart of the production, though, is Abuela Claudia played by Koren Beale successfully stepping away from her conductor’s baton for this show. Aided by occasional brass and percussion, her Sprechgesang and singing in the powerful solo ‘’Pacience Y Fe: Patience and Faith” is a showstopper. Desperations past and the possibility of dreams made real are clearly expressed across the footlights. Terrific audio mixing here too with just enough subtle reverb to bring home the import of the scene without destroying her superb lower notes. She is sage and whole-hearted … and funny!
One of the great strengths of this production is the belief and personability of the cast. They travel downstage and speak to the audience, of their dreams, of their worries and of their past. Director Cierwen Newell has directed these moments skilfully. It’s a big space but her direction has them encompassing the whole audience and drawing us in. Plus, there is always a story in the byplay and interactions of the ensemble, especially in the nightclub scene.
I was particularly impressed with her work in ‘Alabanza’ and ‘Everything I Know’ where the pathos could be ramped to make the sequences maudlin and overly sentimental. In Newell’s hands, a simple, moderate approach and three stellar performances foreground dignity to provide the emotional impact without melodrama. Clever groupings, live candles (rather than ugly battery ones) and the use of a lighting state with spots rather than a stage wash are excellent creative choices.
IN THE HEIGHTS also has excellent creative work from Musical Director James McLanders and his band. I get sick of complaining that the music is too loud so it’s a relief not having to say so for this production. The band is kept under the performers: quietly carrying the emotion in the background, gently supporting the onstage work. There’s nicely focussed brass behind the first song to get the audience toe-tapping and the music only gets better from there. I loved the carhorn joke in Benny’s first scene and especially the woodblock intro rather than shakers into ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’. They can be big when they need to though. The riot was vibrant and frenetic!
The set design really gets out of the way of the cast too. I’m so pleased that Blackout avoided hiring the Melbourne backdrop that everyone seems to use and went with a bespoke set which evocatively and practically expresses the required urban decay. And leaves a huge area for the exciting choreography (Daniel Lavercombe). Slow or at a run, low and high, legs astride or crossed leg turns the dancing is action packed and the Latin and Hip-Hop blend is great fun to watch. The song ‘96000’ is such a joyful experience.
And it’s not just the big numbers, each character has Latin moves and shakes and gestures which pull the production into a united place. As does the costuming. Short skirts and tops tied around waists contrasted with a lovely black and red palette in formal dresses combining ease of movement and character on display. The production is rounded out by a great audio mix (Kieran Vella).
If the community of IN THE HEIGHTS are standing strong at the finale of the show, so too are Blackout Theatre Co. And this strong production is a great way for them to cap off an exciting year and for you to have a really enjoyable night out. IN THE HEIGHTS is playing at The Joan, Penrith until 28th October.
For more about In The Heights, visit http://www.blackouttheatre.com.au/